When 2020 first started, it’s fair to say that Luke Hemmings likely expected the coming year to be one that would come and go like normal, with nothing unexpected set to happen. After all, his band 5 Seconds of Summer were just a couple of months away from releasing their fourth album, and with the standard global touring schedule set to kick off, it was business as usual for the pop-rock icon. Then, COVID happened.
We all know the story by now. While a virus ravaged the world, so too did just about every industry find itself impacted by the associated effects. The ever-resilient music industry also suffered greatly, with touring becoming almost non-existent in the coming months. However, while 5 Seconds of Summer remained resolute in their belief that their upcoming tour would indeed go ahead, eventually, cancellations were forced to be announced, sending the group’s members inside for an extended period of time.
Last year, drummer Ashton Irwin emerged from isolation with his debut album, Superbloom, proving that time spent inside could lend itself to extended periods of creativity. Close to a year later, his bandmate Luke Hemmings has now done the same, unveiling his own debut solo album, with When Facing the Things We Turn Away From officially arriving this week.
At its core, the record sees Hemmings utilising his time spent in stasis to exercise his creative muscles, while the end result is one that is equal parts mesmerising and immersive. Somewhat removed from the stadium-ready pop-rock of 5 Seconds of Summer, When Facing the Things We Turn Away From is Hemmings at his most human, looking inward as he searches for reason and purpose – the result of his first extended period of reflection in close to a year.
Stylistically borrowing from artists such as Neil Young and The War On Drugs in terms of lyrical content, and names such as Bon Iver and James Blake by way of production, When Facing the Things We Turn Away From is an album that hardcore fans of 5 Seconds of Summer might not have expected, but one they’re glad to receive.
In anticipation of his debut solo record, Hemmings spoke to Rolling Stone Australia to explain just how this record came about, what it means to him, and plans for it to appear on the live stage.
Firstly, how did you manage to cope with the last year? Obviously 5 Seconds of Summer had their plans ruined, but how did you maintain your sanity?
Well, California – and especially in LA, which is where I’ve been since COVID started in March of 2020 – pretty much shut down for almost a whole year. There was like three weeks where they tried to open it up again, only for it to shut down again. It’s hard, because I’m always apprehensive in seeing positives in it because it’s obviously been such a hard year for a lot of people.
But I guess for me, it was really sad that we couldn’t tour, but once that was a reality I just sort of accepted it and took time at home for myself, and with the lady [fiancée Sierra Deaton], and with the dog, and just trying to decompress. And I think that’s where this album came from, just being inside for so long. It’s the longest I’d been in the same place since I was kid, before I left at 15.
So it was a slightly different experience for me than it was for other people, but it was alright. I mean, we’re all in the same boat, but I probably welcomed it slightly more. It’s obviously super sad though. I didn’t know it was going to go for this long, and looking back now… I mean, I can’t go home at the moment, I haven’t seen my family in such a long time.
“That’s where this album came from, just being inside for so long.”
I think throughout [the year], it’s just been a lot of music making for me. So it’s just kind of how I dealt with it. I set a challenge of writing songs with no sort of tangible end in sight, and it snowballed it and we’ve obviously ended up here, which is fucking crazy. But yeah, I just sort of made music and took it for what it was, and saw the positives as much as I could. I was lucky enough to be at home and to have a creative outlet on top of the other creative outlet I’ve been in for such a long time. So I’m very lucky and blessed.
When did you first start looking towards a solo album? Was it just in the midst of the pandemic, or had you toyed with the idea beforehand?
I hadn’t thought about it. I mean, I’d thought maybe when I’m older or something, and I’d so something else musically. I tried writing for other people for a bit and that sort of thing, but it was immensely brought on by being at home, the band just putting out an album, an open schedule, and I just love songwriting – I love getting better at it. It’s kind of my whole being.
It’s so funny, because I worked for so long towards this, and with songwriting and trying to make it feel and sound exactly the way I wanted to, I haven’t been writing these last couple of weeks. I’ve been trying, but I’ve been a little bit exhausted on that front.
From the first moment that the idea for the album first coalesced, had you always envisioned making the album you did today, or did it sort of evolve along the way in terms of the sound and focus?
It’s an interesting question, because I think when I first started, I didn’t see it as a full album. I knew I was writing for something else, because at the start I was trying to write songs in full on my own at home. So it started there, and that was a hurdle to get over, and I guess to use a metaphor, the hurdles got bigger and bigger each time. The way the album feels and what it says, and the emotion that it evokes from me and hopefully other people, is exactly what I intended.
I knew that, I knew I wanted it to be introspective and sound very different, expansive, and ethereal because I love that stuff. I knew I wanted that feeling, and I knew I had that when I had a few songs under my belt. But I don’t know, it sort of evolved at the same time. I was discovering things all the time, I was writing so much, and me and Sammy – the guy I did the album with – we were just going back and forth for months and months just trying to find inspiration and new inspiration.
So I guess yes and no, because the feeling I wanted to evoke is it, but it just changed so much over the course of time. The ethos as intended is there though.
“When I first started, I didn’t see it as a full album.”
Were there any specific influences you had at play here? From a production point of view, it feels like there’s very rich production, similar to say Bon Iver or James Blake, but then from a songwriting point of view, it’s very straightforward yet introspective, sort of like Neil Young meets The War On Drugs.
I’m actually very glad to hear you say that [laughs]. You’re totally right, because I love The War On Drugs, M83, Pink Floyd, Bon Iver; all these [artists with a] hyperemotional, sometimes ethereal, often very grandiose feeling to their work. And that’s mixed with my songwriting style, which is somewhat ‘classic’ because I was listening to a lot of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush album, and then even just back-to-basics songwriting.
Back-to-basics being a good thing too, because the lyricism of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bon Iver, and even The War On Drugs… they do this thing where they mix introspective lyrics with ‘big feeling’ production behind it. But yeah, you’ve hit the nail on the head – Neil Young and The War On Drugs [laughs]. That’s smack bang in the middle of where I wanted it to be.
On that topic, from a thematic point of view, it feels very much focused around themes of truth, reflection, and then, even in the album title, facing things one turns away from – which could be interpreted as being about harsh truths and hard realities.
You’re right, because the reason that it is the album title is because every song on the album can relate to that in some way. Some more than others, but all of them – not in a ‘concept album’ way, that’s a scary thing to say out loud [laughs] – they all relate to it. It’s really trying to in a very uncertain time figure out who I am, how I got here, and filling in a lot of gaps in myself in a way.
All the lyrics on the album are just trying to understand everything and trying to find my truth and the way I want to live my life from here on in, because I had such a unique time to look back and reflect on what happened. The sort of journey I’ve had, I mean, 15 to 25 is a huge learning curve anyway, it’s very much ‘boy to man’, even scientifically that’s ‘boy to man’, [laughs].
For me, it was such a crazy time, very up and down, and this beautiful adventure with the band and there was things left on the back-burner that hadn’t been faced – I guess, pun intended. There was definitely enough time to think of it all and try to unravel that. So the whole album is sort of based around that trying to understand myself, where I’ve come from, why I am the way I am, and this feeling of… I’ve always had an obsession with time and things that are uncontrollable for us as humans. They’re all quite big themes lyrically, but obviously introspective to my own interpretation of them as big themes.
“It’s really trying to in a very uncertain time figure out who I am, how I got here, and filling in a lot of gaps in myself in a way.”
Going off that, the record feels almost humanising in a sense. When you have a massive band like 5SOS, it feels like you’re part of this large, global entity, but with this album, you strip things back, put yourself front and centre, and you’re speaking your truths from the heart. So it’s like an entirely new side of you that we’ve not had much of a chance to see previously.
It definitely was exciting and daunting. It’s a very scary thing to do something new in general. I guess it’s different because I love being in the band, and the band is still a band – I’ve been in the studio with them recently, so all is good there.
But it was more daunting within myself, like how I said I was trying to write songs on my own. So to get to this point is such a massive win within myself. To make an album on my own that I’m completely happy with is… I’m sure you’d get that vibe from me, but I’m a massive over-thinker [laughs]. The album has just been dissected so much that I’m happy it’s gotten to a point where I’m so stoked on it, and I’m so proud of it. But getting to this point, yeah, it’s definitely a scary thing, it’s definitely a daunting thing. It’s a new start, and that’s always daunting.
Incidentally, when making an album such as this, is there a fear that fans won’t be able to view this as a “Luke Hemmings record”, but rather a “Luke from 5SOS” record? Or are you just happy to let your work speak for itself?
I don’t know, I think I’m happy that I’m very blessed that I’m in a band where Ashton [Irwin], our drummer in 5SOS did his own album, and now I’m doing my own. The intent behind the album is very sincere in that it’s a creative outlet, and I love being in the band and that was very clear to the band. I’ve tried to make the narrative behind it be very clear, because it’s the truth; I love being in this band, and creatively it does fulfil me, but I just needed to make this music to understand myself. It was just a need that I had, and to have a fanbase that will understand that, it’s just so rad.
Even having you point it out just then, it’s such a cool thing that people who have been with the band for almost ten years, can see me or someone else doing a solo thing and not have it mean the end of the band. It’s a new thing to love about the band. It’s rad that you can see, even from these two albums, where the band’s music might come from. The influences of myself and of Ashton – Callum and Michael have their own influences – coming together helps make the band. It might sound so simple, but I guess when you break it up into seperate bodies of work, it becomes this really interesting story overall, and quite unique to us.
“I just needed to make this music to understand myself.”
Obviously it’s great that people are there, ready to listen, and they’re excited for it even before it’s come out. I don’t know, I’ve just tried not to put so much pressure on it. I made it as a creative outlet and nothing else, and I hope that people like it and listen to it. It’s just another step closer to me as a human since it’s my thoughts, feelings, and the way I would make things sound. But yeah, people have been receiving it really well, and understood why – well, because I told them why, like, this is why I’m doing it [laughs].
Looking ahead, do you have any plans – tentative or otherwise – to bring the record to the live stage?
It would be fun to play it live, obviously. Honestly, I’d take any live show – I’d just go to a live show, that sounds fun. Anything with the word ‘live’ next to it. I mean, I’ve played shows – hundreds of shows a year until the last one. So it’s something that I love and need to do, whether it’s in any sense. Or even just go to one [laughs]. But yeah, I think at some point it’ll go to a live space. I don’t know when.
In an actual show way, like a proper, ‘at a venue’ way, I don’t see it being soon, but honestly if I’ve learnt anything, it’s that nothing is promised. I’m hoping that the band can play shows when they’re booked, but you never know at the moment, so you just hope for the best. But I’d love to put these songs in a live space and I think they would come to life in a way that they haven’t yet. So that’s always an exciting thing, but I’m not sure.
Luke Hemmings’ When Facing the Things We Turn Away From is officially out today via Sony Music.